by Carol Anderson
Small winter squash varieties like delicata, carnival, acorn and sweet dumpling (which looks like a tiny green-and-gold pumpkin) are just big enough for one or two people, and can be microwaved in as little as six minutes. Medium-sized varieties include kabocha, buttercup and sugar pumpkin; the largest are the popular banana, Hubbard and spaghetti squash.
These vegetables are good for you, too. They pack a big nutritional punch without any trade-offs. Rich in potassium and fiber, low in fat and sodium, squash are a source of vitamin C and one of the best sources of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A. All of this for only 40 to 55 calories per half cup of mashed squash.
It can be hard to judge a winter squash from the outside; the size of the squash is no indication of quality. A squash that feels light for its size may be soft and dehydrated inside, so choose the heavy ones with skins that cannot be pierced with a fingernail. The hard shell should be undamaged and have a dull skin with the stem attached. Weigh them before you buy them, figuring on a half pound of whole squash per person.
Once you've got it home, you have a little time to decide what to do with it since winter squash keep well. Under the right conditions -- a cool, dry place, 50 to 55 degrees, and out of the sun -- they can be stored for several months. If you store them at room temperature, however, the storage period shortens to a week or so. Absolutely do not refrigerate squash unless it's been cut; then wrap the pieces in plastic and store only a day or two before using.
There are many ways to prepare winter squash. You can boil, bake, steam, stew, roast, mash, fry, or combine them with meats, fruits and other vegetables to create hundreds of different dishes. You could serve winter squash every day, all winter long and never have to use the same recipe twice.
The biggest challenge when cooking with winter squash is cutting it. I had given up cooking squash because of this -- until I learned about pre-cooking it. Here's what to do: Partially bake or microwave a whole, unpeeled squash until the skin is soft enough to yield easily to a knife. This will take about 25 minutes in a 350°F oven or five minutes on high power in a microwave. When the squash has cooled, you can easily cut it and then prepare it by whatever method you choose.
The stuffed squash recipe below takes some time, but is simple to prepare. It is substantial for family meals and a festive addition to dinner parties. I usually bake it the night before, refrigerate it and then heat it in the microwave just before serving.
Partially bake (350°F for 20 to 30 minutes) or microwave (4 to 6 minutes on high) whole squash until skin can be broken by thumbnail pressure. Transfer squash to a colander and allow to cool. When squash is cool enough to handle, cut each one in half, lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and fibrous tissue. Transfer the shells to the prepared baking dish. Spoon the apples into the squash cavities and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
In small saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Brush this mixture over the exposed flesh of the squash, then drizzle what remains over the apple. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover dish and continue baking for 20 to 30 minutes or until the squash is tender. Serves six.